The Navesink River is one of the most scenic estuaries on the Eastern Coast of America. Known for luxury yachts, stately homes, and iceboating, it is hardly the place you would expect to find the legend of a sea serpent. But, in the late nineteenth century it was the location of one of many well-documented and unexplained sightings of mysterious sea creatures that plagued the waters of the North Atlantic. It appears at least one of these sightings was a shark.
Over a span of years there were many stories of strange sightings along the waterway. Over time the estuary had open directly into the ocean on many occasions only to be closed by shifting sands. During closed times the waters would empty into Sandy Hook Bay.
The longshore current, caused by the angel of waves hitting the shore, causes a south to north movement of sand that opens and closes estuary inlets up and down the Jersey Shore. It is this northern movement of sand that is responsible for the creation of the sand spit we call Sandy Hook. This process continued throughout early historical times until beach protection devices caused the ocean inlet to the Navesink to be permanently closed.
During open times the distance to the ocean would have been a much shorter swim for any sea creature. And the salinity and tidal flow would have been greater than today.
During the month of August 1888 there were many strange sightings in the river. The best documented one took place on Friday August 3rd just after daybreak. Ambrose Matthews Jr. and his brother were towing barges downstream when they spotted a large “Sea Serpent” on Middle Ground Flats between Oceanic and Rocky Point.
The creature was 30’ in length and long around as a barrel. The animal was stranded on the flat in about 10’ of water. As the boat approached the creature started to struggle violently, freeing itself before vanishing in the depths. The answer to the identity of the monster is pretty easy to deduce from fishing reports in the river on previous days. A very large shark had been spotted by several witnesses. Basking Sharks were known to enter many of the estuaries of New Jersey. Nearby Shark River had frequent reports of large basking sharks entering with the tide. Asbury Park and Sea Bright have also been visited by large Basking Sharks over the years.
It is now known that several large groups of Basking Sharks frequent North Atlantic waters. They often gather in groups of over a thousand. There is little doubt they could be in the area.
They also closely fit the description of being barrel shaped. As plankton feeders they open their huge mouth and swim presenting a very barrel shaped image when viewed at the surface and from above.
The size also fits with some experts estimating they can reach 40’ in length. They are the second largest of all the shark species only outsized by the Whale Shark.
It seems almost certain what the Matthews Brothers had seen was a Basking Shark that had become trapped on the mud flat with the outgoing tide. Another creature seen the following year is not so easy to explain.
The creature in question was seen by several people during the summer of 1889. Just about all of the witnesses were familiar with local sea life and could not explain the sightings.
The best recorded account took place on a hot summer night while returning from a daylong outing. Marcus P. Sherman, Lloyd Eglinton, Stephen Allen and William Tinton, all of Red Bank encountered the “monster”. The Red Bank Register reported the witnesses to be sober and respectable local merchants.
At around 10:00 P.M. the yacht Tillie S., owned by Sherman, was making its way back to Red Bank after a picnic at Highlands Beach. The men had enjoyed a pleasant Sunday evening escaping the warm early summer weather. The moon was shining bright, providing for high visibility as the yacht cut through the water. A stiff summer breeze was blowing and they rounded the Highlands and headed toward Red Bank. At the tiller of the Tillie S., Marcus Sherman steered through the familiar waters. At the bow was Lloyd Eglinton, who kept watch for debris in the water ahead.
Suddenly Eglinton yelled that there was something in the water dead ahead. Sherman steered “hard to port” to avoid the collision. As they looked to see what the obstacle was, they were shocked. There ahead of them was the Sandy Hook Sea Serpent that had been sighted many times over the preceding two years. So credible were the sightings of the Serpent two years earlier, that Scientific American had run an article issuing an opinion that the monster was in fact a Giant Squid. The article, complete with drawings, appeared in the December 27, 1887, edition of the prestigious scientific periodical.
The earlier sighting at Sandy Hook had been made by several credible witnesses. Most notably the members of the Sandy Hook Life Saving Service. The crewmembers had sighted a large monster in the cold waters just off Sandy Hook in November 1879. The sighting was so credible that scientists were dispatched to take statements. It is from these descriptive statements that it was determined the Sandy Hook Sea Monster was, in fact, a giant squid. For the next several years there were reports of all types of sea serpent sightings up and down the east Atlantic Coast.
What the Red Bank men saw was surely no giant squid. It was described as about 50-foot long and serpentine in shape. It swam with snakelike undulations slowly and steadily through the water. As it passed halfway past the bow, its head rose from the water giving forth a mighty roar. The head was described as small and somewhat resembling a bulldog’s in shape. It had two short rounded horns on its head just above its eyes. The eyes we said to be the size of silver dollars. Bristles adorned the upper lip of the monster, much like those that would be found on a cat. The beast’s nostrils were quite large and flattened. The serpent-like body tapered to a sword like pointed tail. The frightened men stared in disbelief as it slowly and leisurely swam toward the shore of Hartshorne’s Cove. As the monster disappeared into the night, the men made their way back to Red Bank with a monster of a story to tell.
The men of the Tillie S. were not the only ones to see the creature. Other boaters on the water saw the serpent and gave near identical descriptions. In all over a dozen boaters had seen the strange creature on his nocturnal swim. Over the next months and years there would be other sightings of the monster in the Navesink. In time it came to be known as the Shrewsbury Sea Serpent. No scientific explanation was ever given for the sightings, as had been done for the so-called Sandy Hook Sea Serpent, however the description is not totally without merit.
Other than the size, the description is very similar to that of the Oarfish. The giant Oarfish is known to reach near 40’ with unconfirmed reports up to 50’. It is also easy to misjudge size when viewing an organism in the water. In any case the mystery remains as to the true identity and fate of the Sea Serpent.